Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated: Selden Connor

Col. Selden Connor, commander of the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment, sent this and another photograph to Maine Adj. Gen. John L. Hodsdon on May 3, 1864, three days before a Confederate bullet struck and supposedly mortally wounded Connor at the Wilderness. (Maine State Archives)

Col. Selden Connor, commander of the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment, sent this and another photograph to Maine Adj. Gen. John L. Hodsdon on May 3, 1864, three days before a Confederate bullet struck and supposedly mortally wounded Connor at The Wilderness. (Maine State Archives)

The news struck Kennebec Valley residents like a lightning bolt: Selden Connor, long associated with the vaunted 7th Maine Infantry Regiment, was dead, shot and mortally wounded on May 6, 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness.

“Gen. Seldon (sic) Connor, late of the 19th Maine … died last week in Washington,” reported the Daily Whig & Courier on Friday, June 24. The Bangor-based, pro-Republican W & C had picked up a press account from Ezekiel Holmes’ Maine Farmer in Augusta; that paper in turn had quoted a report telegraphed from the nation’s capital.

A Fairfield native, Connor had joined the 7th Maine in August 1861, after serving as a private in the 90-day 1st Vermont Infantry Regiment. He had graduated from Tufts College (now Tufts University) in Medford, Mass. and had gone to Vermont to study law; with his initial military service done, he applied to Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. for an officer’s position with the 7th Maine.

Reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, Connor was a combat veteran when tapped to command the 19th Maine Infantry in December 1863. The War Department had planned bigger and better things for him, however; when the Overland Campaign began in late April 1864, Connor was commanding the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, II Corps, albeit temporarily, as he still commanded the 19th Maine (which was assigned to the brigade).

A brigadier general’s star was rumored to be coming his way, too.

On May 3, Connor mailed an envelope to Maine Adj. Gen. John L. Hodsdon. “In reply to your request I take great pleasure in sending you my photograph. I send two from which you can select,” Connor wrote.

The 200-pound Connor took his brigade into the Wilderness, and a Confederate bullet struck him in the thigh on May 6. Hodsdon soon learned the terrible news.

Connor briefly vanished from the public’s eye as an ambulance transported him to Fredericksburg. An Army surgeon struggled to repair Connor’s shot-up leg.

His death stunned his fans back home. “Thus at the early age of 26 years, when he had risen through the several grades of promotion from private to command of a brigade, and a loftier and still more useful career was opening to him … his name is added to the list of heroes and martyrs, who have nobly sealed their devotion to that country with their lives,” the Whig & Courier quoted the Maine Farmer.

“The day before his death, his appointment as Brigadier General was approved by the Senate, a tardy but honorable recognition of gallant and meritorious service,” the paper noted.

On May 6, 1864, Col. Selden Connor of Fairfield commanded a Union brigade fighting at the Wilderness in similar fashion to these Union troops battling there, as depicted in Harper's Weekly. Connor suffered a severe wound when a bullet struck his thigh. He was later reported as mortally wounded and then as dead. (Library of Congress)

On May 6, 1864, Col. Selden Connor of Fairfield commanded a Union brigade fighting at the Wilderness in similar fashion to these Union troops battling there, as depicted in Harper’s Weekly. Connor suffered a severe wound when a bullet struck his thigh. He was later reported as mortally wounded and then as dead. (Library of Congress)

Mainers had broken out the black crepe, bunting, and clothing in preparation for Connor’s funeral, sure to be a humdinger if there ever was one. Maine had lost another brave and talented officer.

Sometime between his June 24th issue hitting the Bangor streets and his June 25th issue going to press, Whig & Courier Editor William H. Wheeler received a brief message. He immediately tore apart column three of page 2 of the June 25th issue and inserted a short paragraph subheaded “Gen. Connor.

“We learn from Gen. S P Strickland that Gen Connor is not dead but is doing well. We make the announcement with joy, and it will be received by Union men with feelings of profound gratitude. He is a brave officer, and we are pleased to state that he will live to honor the new position he is so eminently qualified to fill.”

Selden Connor still lived. After the war, he would relate how he was wounded.

After Col. Selden Connor was wounded at The Wilderness on May 6, 1864, comrades placed him on a blanket and evacuated him, possibly in a manner similar to this depicted by combat artist Alfred Waud. (Library of Congress)

After Col. Selden Connor was wounded at The Wilderness on May 6, 1864, comrades placed him on a blanket and evacuated him, possibly in a manner similar to this depicted by combat artist Alfred Waud. (Library of Congress)

With Confederates firing on his brigade in the Wilderness, Connor had changed “my front to meet the enemy.” Once Union skirmishers had cleared to the 1st Brigade’s flanks, “I began a fire by file and the noise of it swelled to a continuous sound like the roll of a drum.

“All at once something like a sledge hammer hit me in the thigh and felled me to the ground in the road,” Connor recalled. “Captain Nehemiah Smith put me on a blanket and I was carried to the rear.

“I weighed about two hundred pounds and the way was rough, so that a good many men took a hand in carrying me to the Brock Road,” he remembered.

His wound stabilized at Fredericksburg, Connor shipped north to Douglas Hospital in Washington, D.C. Days later a telegram sent to Maine announced his death from his wound.

He lived to become a three-term Maine governor, a federal pension agent, and Northern Banking Co. president. When Connor died at age 78 in Fairfield on July 9, 1917, this time he was dead for real.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.